The Russian Fiddle.

He awoke to brilliant sunshine, his cheek pressed against a smooth, wooden board. The world appeared to be moving, or perhaps he was just dizzy with the intense heat. Sitting up cautiously, he opened his eyes, squinting against the brightness, and realised that the world was indeed moving, or at least the boat he was in was swaying gently beneath him.

Bemused he tried to catch his thoughts, but could only stare, puzzled, at the wide expanse of water.

He had gone to sleep in his house, in his bed. His brother was either asleep or pretending to be when he had gone upstairs, there was nothing unusual about his nightly routine. For a while he used his phone to play games with his friends, but knowing that he had an important music examination the next day, he cut this short, wanting to be fresh and energetic when he woke up. A favourable result would gain him a scholarship to a prestigious musical academy.

He blinked several times and looked again. He was still on a boat and what is more, an unknown man was looking at him, and had just asked him a question. The language was completely unfamiliar, fast and gutteral, but the stranger did not seem aggressive; though perhaps a little impatient.

“What’s up with you? Have you got water in your ears, or maybe your brain, perhaps?”

This was said with a smile as Michael shook his head. The words translated in his mind, although he was sure that he had never heard this language before.

“I’m sorry, I feel a bit weird.”

It was all he could think of saying, and he was sure that he had spoken in English, but the words seemed to make sense to the foreigner sitting opposite him.

Studying the other person covertly, Michael saw someone a little older than himself. He looked short and wiry, very fit, with a deep mahogany tan. His eyes were a startling blue, and his hair and morning beard was black. He did not seem to be surprised that Michael was sitting in his boat, but he was now looking concerned.

“Are you ill, Mikhail?”

“I don’t feel too good”, Michael admitted.

The other reached over with his hand and put his palm against Michael’s forehead.

“You are hot, Mikhail, you shouldn’t fall asleep in the sun. Go inside, drink some water and stay in the shade for a couple of hours.”

Looking up, Michael guessed that the awning in the middle of the boat counted as being inside. Four poles held a roof made from a tarpaulin, it had four sides made from the same material. These were partially pulled back, folded and tied to the poles, giving a cooler, shaded area to sit in. A wooden bench divided the boat into front and back.

There was a small stove with a blackened cauldron sitting next to it, and a very ornate kettle, which Michael recognised as a samovar. His grandmother had owned one, though Michael had never seen it used; it was a souvenir from her travels. His grandmother had been very restless, often jumping on a plane with very little forward planning.

One such journey, famous in family history, had started with her walking into a travel agency and impulsively buying a trip to Greece at a very low price. She then went home to pack a suitcase and told her husband, his Grandad; “You’ll need to walk the dog and feed the cat for a week, I’m going to Athens tomorrow.”

Standing up carefully , Michael walked gingerly to the shaded area and sat down. A bucket of water had a ladle hanging over the edge. He dipped it in the water and not seeing a mug of any kind, drank straight from it. Surprisingly thirsty, he repeated the action before lying down on the boards, closing his eyes and trying to work out what was going on.

The gentle rocking of the boat was soothing, and he fell back asleep. He dreamed that he was in his bed, and the boat was a dream within a dream, but waking up about an hour later he was still lying in the shade, in the boat.

Panicking inside, but not showing it, Michael decided that it was, it must be, a particularly vivid dream. This calmed him a little, and he made up his mind to wing it. If he acted as though everything was normal and tried to pick up clues as he moved through the day, perhaps it would work out. Taking stock of his surroundings which were really very pleasant, he also decided that he would treat the experience as an unexpected holiday.

Yawning and stretching theatrically, he opened his eyes and sat up.

“I feel much better,” he told his travelling companion, “but my head is very fuzzy, so please put up with me if I seem a bit slow. I’m struggling to remember things, but I feel good physically, and I’ll do my best. “

The older man smiled at him.

“You dream too much anyway, Mikhi, I’m not sure I will be able to tell the difference. Here, you steer for a while, and I’ll catch us a fish for our dinner. “

Michael sat down beside him, took the oars, and started to row.

“Hey! A bit more gently, you’ll send us into the bank.”

“Sorry, ” Michael apologised, “just an accident, I’ll do better. “

Indeed he did do better. He enjoyed rowing and although this boat was unfamiliar to him, the technique remained the same, regardless of vessel. Keeping clear enough of the bank that he would not foul the paddle blades, he was equally careful not to stray too far into the river which was very wide and looked dangerous.

“Whereabouts are we, anyway?” he asked.

“Well that city over there, ” he was told humorously , “is still Nizhny Novgorod”.

Michael looked across the water to a large settlement, slightly behind them.

“Neeshnee, eh?” He pronounced it carefully, rolling his eyes, “Well of course”.

He pretended to be affronted that he had not been given a more precise answer, but at least he knew now what part of the world he was in. Geography was one of his interests and he realised that he was in Russia, the river he was on had to be the Volga. He wished that he spoke Russian, then realised with a smile that he was doing so.

He was aware that some of his maternal ancestors, great grandparents perhaps, came from Eastern Europe; but all that he could dredge up in his mind was a memory of one faded photograph which his Grandmother had owned. This showed a stern looking man wearing a helmet which had a spike on top, he had a friendly looking, pretty woman beside him. Michael knew nothing about them, he wasn’t even sure whether they had been his grandmother’s parents, grandparents, or other family; uncle, aunt or whatever. As a child he was much impressed by the soldier’s helmet though, and his fierce moustache.

Remembering the soldier’s name, he murmured aloud, “Otto”, smiling at the memory.

“What?”

The fisherman looked over to him.

“I was just thinking out loud. ” Michael admitted.

“About what?” Otto asked .

Exulting inside because he appeared to have found out the name of his host, Michael grinned.

Looking carefully, he realised that his new friend looked a lot like a younger version of the man in the photograph except that he was wearing scruffy, though clean, working clothes. He was also smiling, looking far less intimidating than Michael’s long dead relative .

“I was thinking that I wouldn’t mind growing a moustache as impressive as yours”, he laughed.

Otto chuckled back.

“You’ll have to wait a while longer yet”, he was told. “Anyway, with your blond locks, you’ll never grow such a manly set as mine.

“Wait and see”, Michael said. “Wait and see. Are those fish biting yet?” he teased.

“Take us over to those trees, we’ll tie up in the shade and see if we can get a nice carp in the pool there. “

Michael rowed carefully towards their destination, then feathered the oars gently, while Otto threw a rope over a low branch and secured their boat. After the two of them clambered ashore, they unloaded the boat and started to set up a small camp.

First of all, Otto carefully set up two poles on the bank, fixing them at such an angle that their lines would not tangle together, and baited them with a little cheese, a foul smelling piece of which he took from the cauldron where it had been stored for coolness.

“Now”, he said. “Time for tea, eh?”

Otto took from the cauldron a small clay teapot, which was wrapped in a towel together with two tin mugs. He also produced a twist of greaseproof paper with tea leaves, and a little pot which turned out to contain plum jam. He shook out the towel and placed these items on top, then, taking the lid from the samovar, he filled the outer part with water after first making sure that it was standing firmly, and would not fall over.

Michael looked at the kettle as Otto was doing these things. It appeared to be a very fancy, double skinned chimney, a tube in the middle serving as both flue and firepit. He recognised the design immediately, having used a kelly kettle while camping.

The kelly kettle nearly always boiled over when he used it, but the samovar had a tap on the front which was placed over the clay teapot, now containing far more tea leaves than Michael thought necessary.

Taking twigs and pine cones from a cloth bag and dropping them into the chimney, Otto eventually lit a twig with a very large, odd looking match, and once the twig was properly alight he dropped twig and match into the well of the flue. The contents caught fire immediately, and Otto placed a steel tube which had been stored under the bench, extending the flue on the samovar to take the smoke up and away from their eyes. Michael watched, fascinated.

The kettle boiled in no time, the boiling water draining into the pot, which was soon filled with strong, black tea. Otto replaced the water in the samovar, bringing it to the boil again before letting the fire burn out.

Whistling, he produced two thick slices of black bread, which had been sitting with the noisome cheese. One piece he offered to Michael, the other he kept, then, slicing the cheese in half with a pocket knife, he offered a portion to Michael who politely turned it down.

“What’s up? You’re not hungry? You must be ill!”

Michael just smiled and said that the bread and a mug of tea was fine.

Otto shrugged. “Suit yourself”, and he took a pipe from his pocket, together with a small tin box filled with fragrant tobacco. “I won’t offer you a smoke” he said. “Gisele would kill me.”

Michael had grown up in a smoke free environment where smoking was frowned on so much by society, that this casual comment shocked him far more than the fact that he seemed to have travelled through space and possibly time; not to mention the fact that he was talking in English and listening in Russian.

Having filled his pipe, Otto dropped some tobacco onto the river.

“Will that entice the carp?” Michael wondered aloud.

“This is for Vodyanoy”, he was told.

“Tell me about Vodyanoy?” Michael asked.

Otto told him about a water spirit, a naked old man, with green, scaly skin and algae in his hair. He was known to drown folks who strayed into his territory, or to drag them to a cave under the water, where he kept them as slaves. All in all, it was better to give an offering than to risk his displeasure.

“Also,” Otto added, “treat him right and he might put a big juicy carp onto our line.”

Looking suitably impressed, Michael nibbled at the hard black bread which was moist and filled with some kind of sweet, spicy seeds.

“This is very good”, he said, surprised.

Otto took the two tin mugs, placed a teaspoonful of jam in each, and poured the very strong tea on top, filling the mugs about half way. He topped them up with hot water from the samovar.

“Here”, he said. “Enjoy.”

Michael did not like tea, he rarely drank it at home, and if he did then it had to be so weak you could see right through it; he also half filled up the cup with milk first. ‘Baby tea,’ his dad called it.

Not wanting to seem impolite though he took the boiling hot tea with jam, thanked Otto and sipped it cautiously. To his surprise it was very refreshing.

“This is great”, he told Otto, thanking him again.

After drinking two cups of tea each, eating the bread, and in Otto’s case the cheese as well, the two sat back and relaxed in the shade provided by the trees. Michael was no fisherman, it had always seemed to him to be a boring way to spend time; but sitting chatting idly with Otto, watching the river and trying to find clues as to what was going on absorbed him. Otto did not look as though he came from money, but he seemed well educated and as he talked of his family, it sounded to Michael as though they did well enough for themselves.

“How are you getting on with your fiddle practice?”

Michael was startled at the question . He had been learning the violin since he was seven years old, but how did this man know that? Still, nothing about the day made sense, this was just one more thing.

“I expect you to give us a tune for my birthday, this evening.” Otto went on.

“I can do that as long as you have a fiddle”, Michael answered.

“I know you packed yours, I saw it when you brought your things last night,” Otto told him. “I hope you can play something that we can dance to.”

The two of them were unsuccessful with the carp fishing, Michael was relieved as the thought of first landing and then having to kill a fish turned his stomach. Otto though said that it was not the fish but the quiet, getting away from nagging womenfolk, which was the real point of coming out with rods. Michael smiled at this and kept his peace.

Soon enough though, the sun lengthened in the sky and it was time that everything was packed up and neatly stowed away under the bench in the boat. Before heading off, Otto cut some bright orange and yellow fungus from the willow they were tethered to. Michael had thought that they were poisonous, but Otto assured him that they were good, and would lessen the women’s disappointment when they didn’t bring a carp home.

“It tastes just like chicken”, he said; bringing his pinched middle finger and thumb to his lips and kissing them. Michael privately decided to avoid eating any dish containing wild mushrooms.

Rowing back upriver was hard work against the current and Michael did not know how far they were going, but a couple of hours later, after sharing the work they gratefully pulled up to a landing stage, one of several which led to houses pulled back from the river.

They were met by a woman in very old fashioned clothing, who scolded Otto for keeping them away for so long. She wrapped her arms around Michael, hugging him.

“It’s so good that you were able to come, Mikhail. Come in, come in.”

The house was full of people, all of whom seemed to know him. There were children, teenagers like himself, adults of all ages, and all seemed ready to celebrate; Otto’s birthday, presumably.

Eventually everybody sat down to a meal at a long wooden table, scrubbed until it was as white as the pristine linen cloth laid over it. The food seemed exotic to Michael, but was delicious. Eating a clear soup with tiny dumplings, he asked what they were made from.

The women laughed at him, but eventually told him that they were semolina. He ate everything put in front of him to general approval. Even when he felt that he was bursting, he was encouraged to take more; “Eat child, eat!”

Finally though, everyone was finished. The women cleared everything away, both charmed and surprised when Michael tried to help them.

“Sit down”, he was told. “This is not man’s work, ” but the woman who had hugged him, Gisele, gave him another hug and told him that he was a good boy.

The men sat and smoked, and drank clear, dangerous looking alcohol which Michael did not want to try, but he was disappointed even so when nobody offered him any.

As the sky darkened and lamps were lit, someone started to sing. The fine, baritone voice rang out, telling of a girl who was beloved but who loved somebody else. More maudlin songs followed, the women as well as the men taking their turn, sometimes as a beautiful duet. Otto got up and went into another room, coming out again with an old fashioned violin case.

“Now” he said, giving the case to Michael. “Our Mikhail is going to cheer us up and give our feet something to do.”

Put on the spot, Michael was nervous enough, but brought the fiddle from its case. He was not too surprised when it turned out to be his own familiar instrument. He stroked its lustre, checked the tuning, rosined his bow and pulled it across the strings.

Not knowing what they expected, he played Monti’s Czardas.

After a few moments everybody was up, dancing and laughing with pleasure. He breathed a sigh of relief as he couldn’t think of anything specifically Russian in his repetoire, but it did not seem to matter.

When he had finished the piece, Otto came and put his arms around Michael’s shoulders.

“I always knew that Grandfather Mikhail’s fiddle should go to you. I was right, wasn’t I?”

The assembled company chorused that yes, he was correct. Otto started singing, his voice a deep bass. Michael picked up the tune and accompanied him and the night went on.

As people started to sit down and chat quietly or to drift away, Michael went to Otto.

“I’m so glad to be here”, he told him.

“I’m glad that we finally met,” Otto told him, mysteriously. “Come on, I’ll show you where to sleep.”

He pointed to a doorway which Michael had not noticed.

“Sleep well, Mikhail.“

Michael smiled back at his new friend as he opened the door.

“See you tomorrow” he answered.

As he walked into his own familiar room, he blinked and looked around. The music and the laughter echoed in his mind, but he could hear computer noises and the buzz of music leaking from his brother’s headphones.

“Otto!” he called, turning around, shocked.

“Hurry up Michael if you want a lift”. His mother was at the foot of the stairs, car keys in hand.

“Who’s Otto?”

He tried to count up the greats in his head.

”Great, great Grandfather, I think”, he told his mother cautiously.

His mother looked at him curiously, but merely said, “Good luck with your exam. Don’t be nervous, you can do this, you’ve worked hard for it. “

“Mum,” he asked, “where did my violin come from?”

“It was your Grandmother’s” she told him. “She brought it with her after the war, why?”

“Well Grandmother didn’t play,” Michael said. “I just wondered.

“It was her father’s,” his mother said, “his father’s before that, I think. You have his name. “

“Michael?” he asked.

“Well they would have called him Mikhail, but yes, it’s a family name. Come on, get in the car.”

He was silent as his mother drove him through the streets, dropping him off outside his school. Seeing his friend standing by the gates, he greeted him, “Hey, Asif,” and the two walked in together.

Asif was also a musician, though his instrument of choice was piano, and he was also being examined towards the scholarship.

“How are you feeling, Mikey?” he asked.

“Nervous”, was the reply. “I think you’re much better than me, but I’d be daft not to try for it. Plus I have my lucky fiddle. “

He held up his instrument in its modern case.

“What’s lucky about it?” Asif wanted to know.

“It was my great, great, Russian Grandad’s”, Michael boasted. “It’s been passed down through the family forever.”

“I didn’t know that, you’ve never said before. I didn’t know you were part Russian, either. You’re a dark one sometimes, Mikey.”

“C’mon”.

The two linked arms and walked in together.

The exam took about an hour and a half. Apart from playing, Michael was asked questions about music theory, but also about his other interests, where he saw himself in five, ten years time, and other questions which he thought were irrelevant, though he answered as honestly as he could. He had no idea how well he had done when he came out of the music room, but in some way it did not matter. He knew that he had his music regardless of schooling or training, although he hoped very much to gain the scholarship.

Asif and he spent the rest of the day dissecting their separate examinations in detail. Their instruments complemented each other well, and they often studied and played together.

There was only one scholarship available and both boys wanted it but were good enough friends to genuinely wish the other good luck.

The day before the acceptance or the rejection letter was due, both were very nervous. Each boy knew that only one could get through, and when it happened, in addition to the disappointment they would inevitably see less of each other.

Michael was at breakfast when the letter came through. His father brought it to him, and both parents looked at him expectantly as he opened it and pulled out the single sheet of paper. As he read, he tried to keep a straight face, but could not keep the smile from breaking through.

“I made it.” He spoke almost in a whisper.

Jumping up and waving the letter at his parents, he shouted this time,

“I made it. I really made it!”

As he danced around the kitchen, jubilant, there was a knock at the front door. His mother answered it, and Asif followed her into the kitchen looking sheepish. Michael immediately toned down his joy, knowing that his success was his friend’s loss.

“Are you ok?” Asif asked.

Michael looked at his friend. “Sure,” he answered, “though I’m sorry. You must feel dreadful.”

Asif looked surprised.

“Well, obviously I’m sorry that it could only be one of us. I’ll miss you, but we can still get together in the holidays and keep in touch online and that.”

He then added hesitantly, “I’ve a new piece here for piano and violin, I wonder if you want to bring your violin and we could have a go? It’s Glinka, so your Russian fiddle should enjoy it.”

“Yeah, let’s give it a go. I’m really sorry cause I know that you’re the better musician, I said it was my lucky fiddle, though.”

As the boys walked to Asif’s house, the two started speaking at the same time.

“You first” said Michael.

“I was just saying that I won’t have a lot of time, my parents want to do the rounds of my relatives before I go to London” Asif explained.

“You’re going to London too?” Michael asked, his eyes shining. “That’s fantastic, we can still maybe see each other. Will you be anywhere near the Academy?”

“Well of course, I will be staying in their student accommodation.”

Michael spoke, uncertainly.

“You do know that I was accepted for the scholarship?”

“But I got the scholarship”.

The two of them pulled out their letters and looked again, before swapping them to read each other’s.

Asif’s was a straightforward letter congratulating him on his acceptance. Michael’s told him that although the judges had at first considered rejecting him, they believed that he had the makings of a fine musician who would benefit from the well rounded education offered by the Academy. They were therefore offering him a full scholarship, an extra one for this intake. He also had been given congratulations.

He had not fully taken this in when he skimmed through his letter, just saw the words, “Congratulations” and “Full scholarship”.

“We’re both going!”

The two ran down the street laughing, and just before they turned the corner to Asif’s house, Michael caught a glimpse of a smiling man, with dark hair and a luxuriant moustache. He raised a hand in salute and winked at Michael, but when Michael turned and looked back there was nobody there.

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